Quito to Rio: crater lakes, volcanoes, and inching our way up to 5000m

Quito sits high in the Andes, in the north of Ecuador. We ended up staying there on four separate occasions, in between excursions to cloudforest, volcanoes, and the Amazon rainforest. We became fond of our favoured hostel, Posada del Maple, and the tiny restaurant of just four tables run entirely by a friendly but slightly melancholy man, where we would go for a delicious dinner.

For its relatively small size, by South American standards, Ecuador’s geographical diversity is extreme. If you want to see as many habitat types as possible within as small an area as possible, Ecuador should be your destination. The Andes run north-south down the length of the country in two parallel cordilleras. High peaks (Chimborazo, at 6310m, being the highest), erupting volcanoes, and high altitude plateaus give way to the western and eastern slopes dropping down to sea level (or near enough, in the case of the Amazon basin). The peaks are so high that they have formed an effective barrier between west and east for numerous species. As a result of this isolation, many species have evolved separately on each side: species on one side will often not be found on the other. The forest starts high and stunted, before transforming into lush and permanently shrouded high elevation cloudforest, and then emerges from the clouds as tropical forest. Not only are these forests highly diverse, but their differing species composition mean that overall diversity is higher still. And the habitats do not end there. The Amazon extends eastward, while in the west coastal rainforest gives way to mangroves, the coast, and 1000km away, the Galapagos Islands. Over 15% (1600 species) of the world’s birds can be found in Ecuador, and it this level of diversity that has led to Ecuador being declared one of 17 megadiverse countries in the world.

Our next destination was a couple of hours south of Quito, the small town of Latacunga. Driving along the Pan-American Highway, the route took us through the ‘avenue of the volcanoes’, but sadly they were all invisible in the clouds. We arrived in Latacunga at Sunday lunchtime, to find a hot, sunny and sleepy central square.

Latacunga main plaza

The town seemed pleasant, but largely deserted, and we found a friendly little hotel to stay in overlooking the square. Later, as the heat gave way to fat raindrops, we took a taxi to a shopping mall on the outskirts of town to pick up some food supplies. Everywhere in town was shut, so we were surprised to learn that the shopping mall would be open. Its large plate glass windows looked at odds with the low, ramshackle buildings spreading out from the pretty town centre. Inside, the whole town was there. It was buzzing with families. Rain started leaking through the roof. We found a huge supermarket and stocked up, and as we stepped back outside we caught a breathtaking glimpse of Cotopaxi rising above thunderous storm clouds. This was our main reason for visiting, to see Cotopaxi and another volcanic sight, Quilotoa crater lake.

First we headed to Quilotoa. This meant driving up a winding road, higher and higher, leaving Latacunga (at 2670m) far below us. All around was a patchwork of vivid green, with cultivated fields extending up and over every possible hillside. We paused for the requisite souvenir shop stop, unavoidable on any tour, but also highly valuable for local communities to benefit from tourism. Inside were original paintings, Andean scenes, women in traditional dress, an Andean take on Noah’s Ark.

Andean Noah's Ark

Most striking of all was a huge picture of an Amazonian scene. We weren’t allowed to take a photo of it, but what was so arresting, other than seeing the depths of the jungle portrayed here high up in the Andes, was that it was not a celebratory image. Oil leaked from a pipe, flames glowed in the distance, an oil drum floated on its side. Texaco was named and shamed. Ecuador’s relationship with oil extraction from the Amazon is something for a later post, but it was interesting to see that even here it was a highly emotive subject.

Quilotoa itself is a stunning lake, surrounded by the jagged rim of the caldera. We were now at 3800m, the highest of the trip so far, and we coated ourselves in sunscreen and set off for the descent to the lake and back. Our tour guide was hopeless, so it was only later that we learnt that it is still active, and that if you look closely you can see bubbles rising from the depths.

Quilotoa crater lake Ecuador

Quilotoa crater lake Ecuador

The next day we set off for Cotopaxi. Low clouds had meant that other than our glimpse from the shopping mall, we hadn’t seen Cotopaxi at all, so we were excited to wake to a bright and clear day.

Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Cotopaxi is 5897m high, and is still active. Treks to the summit, with a midnight start from the refuge at 4800m, are popular, but we weren’t quite ready for that. Instead, we were heading to the glacier line at 5000m. Even getting this far was a breathtaking challenge, from the low oxygen levels alone, and the views were stunning. The altitude was deceptive, as the valley floor was about 4000m high. From the slopes of Cotopaxi we could see numerous other volcanoes, and it felt like we were on top of the world.

Walking up to the refuge on Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

View from Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

The ground turned from ash to an iron-rich red before disappearing under the ice. We toasted our success with a shared cup of aguardiente on ice from the glacier, and watched a fox walk along a ridge above us. Clouds began to blow in as we started our descent.

Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Red earth as the weather changed Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Then it was a return to Quito once again, before an adventure into the jungle…

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